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American Bach Soloists Take Intimate View of Bach Oratorios

April 26, 2016

American Bach Soloists

The great J.S. Bach (1685-1750) only deemed three of his large-scale liturgical compositions worthy of the title of ‘oratorio’ and it was not without a sense of pride that the American Bach Soloists announced that, after the Christmas Oratorio last December, the ensemble would complete the entire trifecta this season.

It did so with the performance of Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios last weekend, in a concert that was perfectly themed for this Eastertide - the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, which includes Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter.

The festive and brilliantly executed program was completed by two thematically connected cantatas by Bach contemporaries Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707) and Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). Buxtehude’s Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (Today God’s son triumphs) is an upbeat celebration of Christ’s victory over the cross, and in Ihr Himmel jubiliert von oben (Your heaven rejoices from on high), the composer describes how heaven rejoices at the imminent arrival of Jesus. 

Both Bach oratorios and the cantatas are written for chorus, vocal soloists, plus a full orchestral complement of strings, woodwinds, trumpets, and timpani. In spite of these relatively massive early-music forces, Music Director Jeffrey Thomas managed to create several moments of deep intimacy during the evening.

One of these remarkable moments occurred during Bach’s Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), in the aria “Seele, deine Spezereien” (O soul, your spices), where a gorgeous flute solo, eloquently played by Sandra Miller, intertwined beautifully with soprano Clara Rottsolk’s clear voice over a simple, punctuated accompaniment of the continuo (cello, violone, organ). Jeffrey Thomas’ already succinct style of conducting came to a complete standstill and he just allowed things to unfold in their own splendid way.

Prominently featured among the vocal soloists was countertenor Eric Jurenas who demonstrated why he is the recipient of the 2017 Jeffrey Thomas Award. The award consists of a cash prize and an invitation to perform with ABS and is given annually “to recognize and encourage young leaders within the Early Music community.”

Jurenas’ performance, although initially somewhat uneven, peaked in the Kuhnau cantata after intermission, where he soloed in two recitatives and the aria “Jesu, wenn ich dich nur habe” (Jesus, if I only have you), and created one of the other intimate moments of the concert, together with bass-baritone Joshua Copeland (who also had an excellent evening) in the duet “Hilf mir es, Jesu, auch vollbringen” (Help me, Jesus, to also accomplish).

One of tenor Zachary Wilder’s highlights of the concert, and yet another moment of great intimacy, was his aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” (Gentle shall my sorrow be), meandering tenderly above a murmur of strings and recorders in Bach’s Easter Oratorio.

The singers and instrumentalists of the ABS Choir and Orchestra were, as always, magnificent. There are simply not enough superlatives to adequately describe their mastery and musicianship, and do justice to their dedication and artistry.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.